“Wait, you still have to stay in his room at bedtime?” she asked, a hint of pity in her voice. We sharing stories and dinner in my home and my least favorite parenting topic had arisen.
“Yeah,” I said sheepishly. “With all his ear infections and our failed attempts at sleep training, he just never got the hang of falling asleep on his own.” I looked down and cut at my lasagna. “Honestly, it’s easier this way.”
“Oh honey, that’s so hard,” she said. It was definitely pity. “It sounds like you need some time for you.”
There was so much more to the story – how much better his sleep was compared to year one, how most nights I dreaded our exhaustive routine but occasionally I savored it — but I couldn’t bring myself to tell it. I took a bite and nodded, searching for how to change the subject.
“So, tell me about your new project…?” And with that, I steered our conversation forward.
There’s something I need to tell you: I’m a bit of an overachiever. I took honors classes from grade school through college. I racked up extracurriculars — choir, cross country, steel drum band, student council — like girl scout badges. For the majority of my short life, I measured my life in grade point averages and activities mastered. The higher, the better.
Naturally, when I achieved my goal of getting pregnant, I began to research every aspect of motherhood. I dove into Expecting Better and my app from The Bump, then lost myself in the mesmerizing world of Mom Influencers. Square after Insta-square they lined up proof of motherly excellence: heart-melting images of swaddled newborns, perfectly styled nurseries and stunning family photo sessions caught at the golden hour.
I wanted that shiny life. Honestly, I still want it, even though I now know those images don’t tell the whole story. Not the back-breaking pain of labor and sleep deprivation or the piercing fear of your child dying. Nor can they fully convey the heart-bursting joy of seeing your child’s first radiant smile or lulling him to sleep with your favorite lullaby, the one dad used to sing at bedtime until you outgrew it.
In 2019, it’s easy to engage in performative parenting — documenting our children’s wins online in exchange for “likes” and a little boost of satisfaction. Raising kids can be so thankless sometimes, and it feels good to be validated. But motherhood is not a race to be won or a course to be aced or a song to be mastered. Motherhood, I’m finding, is terribly difficult to measure. Deep down I know this, but I go ahead and try anyway.
“Please eat your peas,” I said, pointing to my son’s plate.
“I don’t want to!” he responded, edging his plate toward mine.
“Please honey,” I pleaded, nudging it back. I could have written this scene a plethora of ways, all varieties of vegetables and moods and tactics, all leading to the same, stubborn answer:
“No!” he shouted, crossing his arms. We sat at the table in silence, glaring at one another. In his eyes I saw his characteristic spark of defiance. Oh please not another tantrum…
“Fine,” I said icily, yanking the plate away. “Let’s get you cleaned up to play.”
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve tried to push healthy food, how many times I’ve thrown up my hands and accepted my son will eat a medley of snacks for dinner.
At the next meal, I’d try again, hoping this time the broccoli or fish or whatever I was pushing would stick. Some days it worked; most days it didn’t. I didn’t think I was doing such a bad job because I’d heard from moms in my circle that I’m not alone in this struggle. Then I got this text from my husband.
Him: Jack’s underweight
Me: By how much?
Me: What did the doctor say
Him: I don’t know but he is in like the 16th percentile or something
Me: Oh God
Him: She kept drilling me about what he eats and drinks
The revelation brought me to my knees — I wasn’t feeding our son the right food. I wasn’t feeding him enough. I wasn’t . . . enough.
This wasn’t the first time I’d felt like I was falling behind as a mama.
Once my son’s teacher reported that he’d been tripping and falling down too much at his Montessori school and maybe he should get involved in some sort of physical activity? That made me feel physically ill. Or there was the time our expensive sleep consultant told me I’d nursed my son for too long, implying that I’d “ruined” his ability to soothe himself to sleep. Gut punch. And, yes, there was that dinner table conversation about bedtime that left me swimming in a sea of self-doubt.
Her voice is sharp and judgy; she’s constantly criticizing me:
You shouldn’t have yelled at him that way.
You should have faxed in that medical form last week.
You shouldn’t be on your phone right now — play with him.
You should have been there for his big milestone, instead of at work.
More than any other marker, not the shiny moms on the internet or the ones I know IRL, my inner critic likes to remind me of all the ways I’m not measuring up as a mama. Ever the overachiever, she grades me against her great expectations.
My mom stayed home with my brother and me when we were little. I don’t remember the years well, but I do know she was an excellent mother — kind, patient, generous, slow to anger. Still is. I wish I could give my son what I had growing up, not what I’m actually giving him. Fits and spurts of weekday parenting plus long weekends doesn’t feel like enough to me. Often I feel I cannot keep up with motherhood and my career — the pace, the demands of each is too intense to do either very well.
So how do I address this nagging feeling I’m not measuring up? One option might be to ignore or reject it. Good in theory, but harder to execute. Another option might be to make peace with my inner critic, and maybe even give her a little compassion. It’s only human nature to compare yourselves to others, so why not just accept it? Plus swapping stories with fellow mamas has lent me some fantastic tools and tricks for navigating the grueling early years.
An additional way might be to consider what I’m measuring when it comes to motherhood. Yes, the importance of nutrition and sleep and education cannot be downplayed. (If you’re wondering: My husband and I did make a plan for our son to get his weight back on track. And bedtime’s been getting better.) But what if there was something else I could use as a benchmark?
In my work as a freelance parenting writer, I’ve found one theory of child development that keeps turning up, no matter if my story is about teaching your child to tidy up or to inherit your values. That common thread is: What we model, our children inherit. Children soak up the words we speak and the actions we take and reflect them back to us like a mirror.
Could it really be quite that hard and that simple? On the one hand, this is great news. I hope my son mirrors my commitment to relationships and health and creativity. On the other, I don’t know if I can live up to that sort of pressure. My flaws — my pride, my people-pleasing, my workaholism, my perfectionism, to name a few — are not what I want to pass on to him.
Thankfully, to borrow from a Lutheran pastor I heard preach last summer, “There’s grace for that.”
There’s grace for the mom who yells. For the striving mom who always feels like she’s failing. For the mom who’s angry and overwhelmed and in need of a little validation. For the mom who invests so much in her children she forgets herself. For the mom who misses her freedom and wishes she could be more present. (I’ve been all these moms and more.) The good news?
Graces lift us up when we inevitably stumble.
Last week my son and I were in his playroom, sitting thigh to thigh in his mini Pottery Barn chair, chewing on a couple of chocolate chip cookies. Summer sunlight was streaming through the windows, and, as we chomped away, I relished the cookie’s sweetness. Out of the blue he remarked, “Mommy, sometimes I get mad.”
The simple expression stopped me mid-chew. Minutes ago he’d thrown not one but two tantrums when I explained that we could not have a popsicle and a cookie right now, we had to choose just one for dessert. This unexpected utterance made me think maybe all those episodes of Daniel Tiger and conversations about forgiveness were starting to sink in.
“I know buddy,” I answered, rubbing his back with one arm. “That’s normal.”
“Sorry Mommy,” he said, rising to wrap his arms around me, crumbs tumbling off his lips and fingers. “I love you Mommy!”
My eyes smarted with tears. I sure know I stumble often as a mama, but if my son can hold onto this sweetness, I will consider my work excellent.
“Oh honey, I understand,” I said, kissing his cheek and pulling him in tighter. “I love you too.”
If I’m going to measure anything, God, let it be love.
I wrote this post as part of a blog hop with Exhale — an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood led by the women of Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “Measuring Up.” Image credit: Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy